On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest. Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!
Why I Retired At 26
I decided not to hold a press conference because I didn't want to have to say things that were cliché. I've done enough of that since I've been playing football. I actually didn't really plan on saying anything about my retirement at all. I just kind of wanted to disappear. The fact that I was done playing would've been clear once some time had passed, and I hadn't signed back with the Cardinals or any other team. Maybe people would've thought I couldn't get another job. Either way, I was okay with the idea of fading to black, and my legacy becoming "What ever happened to that dude Rashard Mendenhall? He was pretty good for a few years, then he just vanished."
The truth is, I don't really think my walking away is that big of deal. For me it's saying, "Football was pretty cool, but I don't want to play anymore. I want to travel the world and write!" However as I told the people around me that I wasn't planning on signing again, there was a surprising amount of shock and bewilderment.
"Why would you stop now? You're only 26 years old! You're just going to walk away from millions of dollars? Is your knee fully healed? You had a pretty good year last year," etc. After the initial shock response and realization that I'm not kidding, the question that would continue to arise is: Why?
"Why do you want to stop playing football at 26?"
Honestly, I've really enjoyed my time in the NFL and have had tons of fun.
I feel like I've done it all. I've been to two Super Bowls; made a bunch of money; had a lot of success; traveled all over the country and overseas; met some really cool people; made lasting relationships; had the opportunity to give back to causes close to my heart; and have been able to share my experiences and wisdom with friends, family and people all over the world. Not to mention all the fun I had goofing around at work day after day with my teammates! I'm thankful that I can walk away at this time and smile over my six years in the NFL, and 17 total seasons of football -- dating back to when I started pee-wee ball at Niles West in 1997, when I was 10. These experiences are all a part of me, and will remain in my heart no matter what I do, or where I go.
Along with the joyful experiences I had, came many trials. In my last piece, "The Vision," I wrote about traversing through dark and dangerous waters, working to attain peace and refuge. That intense journey described my personal life in the NFL. Journeying through those waters symbolized living a private life in the public eye. Imagine having a job where you're always on duty, and can never fully relax or you just may drown. Having to fight through waves and currents of praise and criticism, but mostly hate. I can't even count how many times I've been called a 'dumb nigger'. There is a bold coarseness you receive from non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet. However, even if you try to avoid these things completely -- because I've tried -- somehow they still reach you. If not first-hand, then through friends and loved ones who take to heart all that they read and hear. I'm not a terribly sensitive person, so this stuff never really bothered me. That was until I realized that it actually had an impact my career. Over my career, I would learn that everything people say behind these computer and smartphones actually shape the perception of you -- the brand, the athlete and the person. Go figure!
What was more difficult for me to grasp was the way that the business of entertainment had really shifted the game and the sport of football in the NFL. The culture of football now is very different from the one I grew up with. When I came up, teammates fought together for wins and got respect for the fight. The player who gave the ball to the referee after a touchdown was commended; the one who played through injury was tough; the role of the blocking tight end was acknowledged; running backs who picked up blitzing linebackers showed heart; and the story of the game was told through the tape, and not the stats alone. That was my model of football.
Today, game-day cameras follow the most popular players on teams; guys who dance after touchdowns are extolled on Dancing With the Starters; games are analyzed and brought to fans without any use of coaches tape; practice non-participants are reported throughout the week for predicted fantasy value; and success and failure for skill players is measured solely in stats and fantasy points. This is a very different model of football than the one I grew up with. My older brother coaches football at the high-school and youth level. One day he called me and said, "These kids don't want to work hard. All they wanna do is look cool, celebrate after plays, and get more followers on Instagram!" I told him that they might actually have it figured out.
Over my career, because of my interests in dance, art and literature, my very calm demeanor, and my apparent lack of interest in sporting events on my Twitter page, people in the sporting world have sometimes questioned whether or not I love the game of football. I do. I always have. I am an athlete and a competitor. The only people who question that are the people who do not see how hard I work and how diligently I prepare to be great -- week after week, season after season. I take those things very seriously. I've always been a professional. But I am not an entertainer. I never have been. Playing that role was never easy for me. The box deemed for professional athletes is a very small box. My wings spread a lot further than the acceptable athletic stereotypes and conformity was never a strong point of mine. My focus has always been on becoming a better me, not a second-rate somebody else. Sometimes I would suffer because of it, but every time I learned a lesson from it. And I'll carry those lessons with me for the rest of my life.
So when they ask me why I want to leave the NFL at the age of 26, I tell them that I've greatly enjoyed my time, but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment. I think about the rest of my life and I want to live it with much quality. And physically, I am grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it.
As for the question of what will I do now, with an entire life in front of me? I say to that, I will LIVE! I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city. I do have a plan going forward, but I will admit that I do not know how things will totally shape out. That is the beauty of it! I look forward to chasing my desires and passions without restriction, and to sharing them with anyone who wants to come along with me! And I'll start with writing!
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Who is at fault for the Santana impasse?
By Buster Olney
It’s worth documenting, again, all that Ervin Santana did well last year:
• Only 24 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title posted a lower number than his 3.24.
• Only 19 pitchers had a lower WHIP.
• His strikeout-walk ratio of 3.16 ranked 35th in the majors.
• Santana held opposing hitters to a .668 OPS, ranking 27th.
• He pitched 211 innings -- only 16 pitchers threw more in 2013.
So he had a really good season, bolstered by his sturdy reputation as being a good guy -- a positive clubhouse presence, someone invested in the esprit de corps.
But with three weeks to go before the Padres and Dodgers play the first game of the season in North America, Santana is still not signed. He is reportedly talking about a one-year deal with the Blue Jays or the Orioles or another team, and if he gets something in the range of $14 million, this will be about $100 million less than what club officials say the initial asking price for him was.
A lot of factors have contributed to him being in this position, from the concerns that some clubs have about whether his elbow will hold up through a multiyear deal, the fact that he’s tied to draft-pick compensation, and the reality that 17 months ago, the regard for Santana was so compromised that he was nearly non-tendered by the Angels.
But the essential truth is that his side completely misread the market, setting a price way too high at the outset and then reacting too slowly as available jobs and money evaporated.
The relationship between a player and his representation can be complicated, and in the end, there are almost always multiple versions of conversations and expectations. Sometimes the player can drive the discussion, sometimes it's player’s parents or spouse or most trusted friend, and sometimes it’s the agents. Sometimes it can be the union, depending on how assertive the player and the agent are. And the guess here is that whoever actually generated and drove the idea of Santana as a $112 million player isn’t going to jump up and down and brag about it today.
The fact is that nobody who takes a paycheck from a team saw Santana as a $100 million-plus pitcher. Nobody. The fact is that Santana should’ve gotten more than what he's expected to receive now, at least comfortably slotting into the group of pitchers like Ricky Nolasco, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson. Those are pitchers who have been good but have never been elite, as Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee have been.
The Royals wanted him back, but after their overtures in September were rebuffed, they took their available dollars and invested $32 million in Jason Vargas, who has never posted an ERA within half a run of what Santana did last year. Other teams checked in on Santana during the offseason, heard the asking price and moved on; when some doubled back, the numbers still hadn’t come down enough to coax an offer.
Speaking generally to USA Today, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin explained how the high price tags can affect interest. From Bob Nightengale’s piece:
Several GMs and executives say maybe it's time for these players to look in the mirror. They all rejected the $14.1 million qualifying offers from their original teams, and when they hit the market, some of the rumored contract requests scared teams.
"I do see these numbers that come out early that say, 'Oh, he's going to get $100 million,'" Brewers GM Doug Melvin says. "You read that stuff, and then you say, well, there's no sense in me even making a phone call if those are the numbers."
All agents want to push the numbers as high as they can, but some say privately that it is absolutely crucial to be tethered to an understanding of how the player is perceived in the market. One high-ranking executive said Friday that he is asked by agents all the time to offer assessments of what a fair deal for their clients would be -- like Rick Harrison from the TV show "Pawn Stars," who will call in an expert for an opinion before negotiating a price.
In the case of Santana, there was a total disconnect between the asking price and how the industry viewed him from the outset of the offseason.
Because of this, somebody is going to get him for a good price. The Orioles have prospered late in this offseason because of how the market has played out, landing Ubaldo Jimenez for a deal right in the Jackson/Nolasco range of $50 million for four years, and signing Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal. Maybe they’ll get Santana, too. The Blue Jays -- whose two first-round picks are protected -- have waited patiently and could land Santana in a good value deal; as the saying in the industry goes, there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract.
If Santana’s elbow blows out in 2014, well, the team that signs him won’t have a long-term obligation. If he regresses to his 2012 form, when he had a 5.16 ERA for the Angels, then any team that signed him to a one-year deal could just let him go in the fall. If he has another strong season, well, then his next club can just give him a qualifying offer.
Regardless of what the final number is, or who is at fault, exactly, it should’ve turned out better for him.
Are Major League Baseball Teams Deploying Their Scouts Efficiently?
Texas, California, and Florida lead the nation in draftees, and not coincidentally, in scouts. But is the way the scouting community is currently situated the best way?
I have to admit, I feel awfully spoiled sometimes here in sunny Southern California. Great prospects seemingly grow on trees around here. I can see games at UCLA, USC, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount, Cal State Northridge, or Cal State Fullerton - and those are just the Division-I schools. There are also fourteen D-II/III schools and 361 prep programs within sixty miles of my house. Any day of the week, I can watch a draft prospect.
Most of you can understand that, if you live in Texas. In fact, in the 2003-11 drafts, California and Texas combined to produce more 26.19% of all the players taken in the Rule 4 Draft. Throw in Florida, and that number jumps to 36.72%.
As a result of all this great baseball, I've come to know a lot of the local area scouts. Those that I don't know by name, I know by sight. There is a heavy scouting presence in California, as witnessed by the fact that over 1,900 players - the most of any individual state - were drafted out of California colleges and high schools between 2003 and 2011; far more than out of any other state. In fact, the only other state to hit four digits is Florida, which comes in below 1,200. Texas is third, falling just shy of a thousand.
And yet, when I talk to friends back home in Ohio, they always talk about how rare it is to see scouts, even at Division-I games, which led me to one train of thought: Are there places where these scouts might be better served? Is there a more effective way that Major League organizations could be deploying their personnel? With that in mind, I decided to take a look at the numbers.
I chose the 2003 - 2011 drafts for my sample size. I didn't want to go too far back into the past, in order to keep the data as current as possible. Additionally, I wanted to give the sample room to "breathe" - for players to filter to the big leagues in a reasonable amount of time. So I didn't include the 2012 or 2013 drafts in my numbers.
How Are Scouts Currently Being Deployed?
The first question we must ask when looking at this question is: How are teams currently deploying their scouting staff? A reasonable way to answer this is by looking at the number of draftees out of individual states during our sample.
From looking at the map, we can see that most of the players drafted by Major League teams live in the south. The top ten states, in order, are California, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Coming in at #11 is the first northern state: Illinois.
Meanwhile, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota account for just 23 combined draftees during our span - one fewer than Rhode Island. In fact, 23 is fewer than every state except for Maine (12), Vermont (5), and Alaska (4).
Using this information, we can intuit that most teams have a heavy scouting presence throughout the southern states, a moderate presence through the midwest and the east, and virtually no presence at all in the Mountains and Plains states.
Are The Scouting Areas Effective?
This is a trickier question to answer, as there are any of a number of ways to look at the data. The first thing I wanted to take a look at is whether there are more scouts in the southern states because there are, in fact, more (or better) prospects in the southern states.
Certainly, it's no surprise that the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, and Big 12 are the best baseball conferences in baseball, and the map above follows those conference lines pretty closely. But the goal of scouting is, presumably, to find major league players. If those conferences - by virtue of being better conferences - produce better players, than that should be easily shown.
So what I decided to do was to count up the accumulated bWAR of the players drafted from each state during this sample. Obviously, states that produced more prospects are bound to produce more major leaguers, and I wanted to find a way to account for this, so I looked at the data a few different ways. First, I divided the total bWAR by the number of draftees from the state:
There are, of course, some possible explanations for this. If fifteen players come from California and five make the big leagues, at least one is bound to put together a high enough WAR value to prop up the ones who didn't make it (a perfect example of this is Wisconsin, where Jordan Zimmermann has created enough bWAR to place Wisconsin sixth, despite the fact that he is the only one of the state's 39 draftees to make it to the big leagues.)
North Dakota, Ohio, and Nebraska emerge as the leaders here. A direct comparison between this map and the first in our article tells an interesting story: Despite the fact that most players are drafted from the southern states, the ones who are drafted from northern states are, on average, better major league players.
This isn't to say that this is the ideal national scouting profile for teams to follow. There is a very obvious possible explanation here: Most players are drafted from the southern states, which probably means that most scouts are working in the southern states. If that's the case, then the very fact that a team drafts someone from a cold-weather state like North Dakota or Ohio means that they're pretty sure that that is a special player.
Every team needs organizational players. Many of those players come from Florida, California, and Texas... simply put, the gems may simply not be enough to cancel out the sheer number of guys who never make it to the big leagues.
How Should Teams Deploy Their Scouts?
It occurs to me that the "ideal" deployment of scouts should probably follow some combination of all of the factors discussed in this article and more. To that end, I ranked each state by major leaguers-per-draftee, WAR-per-draftee, and WAR-per-major-leaguer. I then combined each state's ranking in the individual categories, assigned points to those rankings, and created the map you see below.
Drawing too many conclusions from this data would probably be a mistake, but it occurs to me that there exists a definite possibility that the favoritism teams show players from Texas, California, and Florida may not be the most efficient way to use their scouting departments. If nothing else, the fact that the footprints of the ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, and SEC are so vast means that more data is available on these teams, and scouts might be better served heading north to try to find more undiscovered gems.
Pirates' big risk with pitch-heavy draft focus might soon pay off
By Travis Sawchik
Published: Saturday, March 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Updated 14 hours ago
BRADENTON, Fla. — On the backfield bullpens of Pirate City, the franchise's future seems more promising than at any time since perhaps the late 1980s.
In Pirates camp this spring is a procession of young, athletic, 6-foot-5-plus pitchers with smooth, repeatable deliveries. Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham produce elite, effortless velocity and have developed into consensus top-100 prospects.
For small-market clubs to sustain success, the recent pathway has been through homegrown pitching. The Oakland A's drafted and developed Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The Tampa Bay Rays have produced James Shields, David Price and Matt Moore. But there is a paradox, a Catch-22 — rather a Pitch-22 — for small-market clubs.
Top-of-the-rotation pitchers now earn more than $20 million per year on the open market, pricing many clubs out of free agency. But heavily focusing on drafting and developing pitchers includes incredible risk.Three of four top-100 pitching prospects will fail to reach the major leagues or produce more than 1.5 wins above replacement per season during their careers.
Nineteen springs ago in Port St. Lucie, Fla., New York Mets pitchers Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen were ranked as top-40 overall prospects by Baseball America. They were hailed as “Generation K.” They combined to pitch 83 innings for the Mets from 1997-99.
There is risk and reward in drafting and developing pitchers, and no club has devoted more signing dollars or premium draft picks to amateur pitchers, particularly prep pitchers, than the Pirates since 2008, general manager Neal Huntington's first year. It is an aggressive approach that could determine the club's future success or failure.
As an area scout responsible for much of the Southwest — from El Paso, Texas, to Reno, Nev. — Larry Broadway spent much of 2009 and '10 in Las Vegas. He was stationed there in case the Washington Nationals stunned everyone and bypassed Bryce Harper with the first pick in the coming June draft. The Pirates picked second.
While Harper was reason to justify allocating more time to Las Vegas, the city also was one of the most populated areas in Broadway's territory. While his primary objective was to gather intel on Harper, Broadway had another order from Pirates headquarters: Be on the lookout for a specific type of player, projectable high school arms — bodies that held potential and upside.
On Jan. 16, 2010, in suburban Las Vegas, Broadway entered a Bat-R-Up facility — essentially a warehouse containing a maze of batting cage netting — for a small showcase of 60 prep players. There he found Nick Kingham.
At the time, Kingham was not thought of as an elite prospect. He had sat out the previous season, his junior year, because of transfer rules. He was in Harper's shadow. But he was 6-foot-5, 200 pounds and with a frame to add strength. He was athletic. There was reason to believe he could add more velocity to his 88 mph fastball.
“There was stuff you could dream on,” Broadway said. “From an organizational, 30,000-foot level, we felt like it was time to try and stockpile some of these arms and see if we can't by the law of averages come out with a few aces.”
The Pirates selected Kingham with the 117th pick in the 2010 draft. He was part of perhaps the most risk-laden and reward-heavy draft in baseball history. In the 2010 draft, nine of the Pirates' first 10 selections were pitchers, eight from the high school ranks. The approach was surprising to some analysts. Said Baseball America editor John Manuel: “I challenge anyone to find me another draft where that happened.”
In three drafts from 2009-11, the Pirates spent 22 of their first 30 picks on pitchers. Seventeen were prep pitchers. The Pirates signed 18 of them to bonuses totaling $25.6 million. For comparison, the Pirates paid their top six starting pitchers from last season $26.5 million.
“I think we played more to the strengths of the draft,” Huntington said. “They were very pitching-heavy drafts, and we knew that going in. That's why we really refined what our program was in evaluating pitchers. … Maybe because we spent so much time and energy on focusing what we liked in pitching, maybe we pushed some of the pitchers higher.”
Pirates assistant GM Greg Smith led the draft efforts in each of those years.
“You look at the Stephen Strasburgs of the world, he was a college guy. We started thinking, ‘How do you get those guys before they become Strasburg?' ” Smith said. “ ‘How does (Justin) Verlander become Verlander before he becomes draft eligible and goes No. 2 in the country?' ”
How? You find them young.
After each pitch at Hart High in Newhall, Calif., Pirates scout Rick Allen peered at his radar gun and saw what other scouts saw: an 80-something mph fastball. One by one, fellow scouts departed for their cars and Interstate 5, which winds south to Los Angeles.
“Some of the games I was at, scouts were leaving in the third inning,” Allen said. “In Southern California there are so many games. We bounce from game to game to game. I saw a lot of traffic leaving the park, and I just decided I was going to stick with him.”
Allen was watching a 16-year-old junior named Tyler Glasnow. He had a wire-thin, 6-6, 180-pound frame and an 83 mph fastball. He was not invited to participate in the elite showcase circuits. But Allen stayed with him. The Pirates drafted Glasnow in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. Allen signed him for $600,000.
“What our guys have taught me, basically, is, ‘Let's go out and find guys we can mold.' It doesn't have to be the perfect delivery, but if it's workable and the kid is athletic … we can probably make him better. It's really a great job by our player development staff,” Allen said. “The size, 6-foot-7, the loose arm and being just 17 at the draft, you just dream on it.”
Identifying a projectable arm is one thing. Development is the other key aspect.
“I don't know if he would be as good as he is now (if he went to college) because we did a good job developing him,” Allen said. “But if he was in the (2014) draft, I gotta think he's a first-round pick.”
Glasnow still was throwing only 88 to 90 mph early in his professional debut in the 2012 Gulf Coast League.
“One game, I was working with the pitching coordinators,” Glasnow said. “I used to be real full circle, long, in my motion. They shortened me up to get a quicker arm. ... The next start I went out and I hit 94 (mph) for the first time. The next game I hit 96.”
Last season at West Virginia, his fastball reached 99 mph. He overwhelmed Low-A hitters, striking out 164 batters in 111 innings.
Glasnow also was gaining strength and size. This spring, he's 6-foot-7, 220 pounds. He has been handled cautiously, having logged just 149 professional innings.
Some felt Taillon was handled too cautiously, throwing 382 innings in his first three seasons. Kingham has been handled carefully, too. He threw 71 innings in 2011, 127 innings in 2012 and 143 innings in 2013. But all three have stayed healthy and become stronger.
“(Kingham) is a man now,” Broadway said. “I walk by him, and I'm like, ‘Good Lord.' Big shoulders, big arms, big legs. He's just strong.”
During the Pirates' predraft meetings in spring 2010, the debate about whom to select at No. 2 came down to two names: Taillon, the draft's top arm, and Manny Machado, the top prep position prospect. The Pirates chose the greater risk.
A study by analyst Scott McKinney of Baseball America's top-100 prospect rankings from 1990-2006 found 77.4 percent of top-100 pitching prospects became busts, defined as failing to reach the majors or averaging less than 1.5 WAR per season.
MLB Network analyst John Hart experienced attrition as a general manager.
“A truism is if you have 10, you can really count on two of them making it,” Hart said. “I came up in the (1980s) and never believed it. I said, ‘Come on, there can't be that much attrition.' Then bang: This guy gets hurt. This guy doesn't develop a third pitch. … You can never have enough pitching.”
Some attrition already is occurring. Zachary Von Rosenberg signed for $1.2 million in 2009 and has yet to advance beyond High-A. Stetson Allie, signed for $2.25 million in 2010, struggled so badly that he gave up pitching. The Pirates' challenge is to improve upon the traditional attrition rate.
“You don't sign 10 to get one. That's not going to work,” Smith said. “You want to increase your probability.”
The Pirates are trying to increase their probability, in part, by targeting larger frames.
“I'm certainly guilty of believing that it's a big man's game,” Smith said. “You look at the guys that are going to take the ball every fifth day, those guys are typically big men.”
The Pirates do not disclose their injury-prevention techniques, but they closely monitor pitchers' workloads and health.
“Every two weeks we get a weight check,” Kingham said. “We track our sleep, our water intake, our hydration and everything. Every day you have to do it. We have a point system, and you try to get as many points as you can. We are pretty heavy on health in this organization.”
Still, even if a club does everything right, risks remain. Baseball spent $1.7 billion on disabled pitchers from 2002-12.
“Remember the Mets with the Big Three? With (Paul) Wilson and (Bill) Pulsipher and (Jason) Isringhausen, that whole group?” Hart said. “Some years, some development systems, it works out better. For some others, it doesn't work out at all.”
March 5, 10:02 AM ET
Gasping for greatness
By Howard Bryant
ESPN The Magazine
A YEAR AGO, the "It" hype machine was anointing its newest member while it was coldly reassessing its most recent inductee.
Sloane Stephens, the best hope for U.S. tennis since the Williams sisters burst onto the scene, was basking in the afterglow of beating an injured Serena in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Stephens lost her semifinal match to Victoria Azarenka, but the hype machine had already been ignited. Her wonderful face, all brightness, innocence and shock and hope, had lit up flat-screens around the country. She created one moment, and these days, that's all it takes. She was next.
Simultaneously, the hype machine was on pause for Robert Griffin III, because he had torn his knee to pieces guiding his team to the playoffs. And so RG3's camp decided to co-opt the narrative, reshape it. The story was no longer focused on the field, because he was on crutches, but Griffin's people made sure the legend continued -- in the weight room, on the comeback trail.
Today paints a much more sober picture of both athletes. After a Sputnik-like ascent, Griffin is crestfallen, no longer wise beyond his years but suddenly very much the inexperienced young man he always was, with much to learn about life and leadership. He is now, after the phenomenon, all too human. His fall was hastened by injury and poor play and an intense scrutiny of sentences that in victory resembled leadership but in defeat something far less attractive.
While Griffin fended off criticism last season, two other young quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, ran right past him. Kaepernick reached the Super Bowl in 2013; Wilson won it this year. Not only is it doubtful that Griffin is a top-10 quarterback in the NFL, it is unclear whether he is even the best quarterback on his own team.
As for Stephens, she did not Sputnik after beating Serena; she never got off the ground. The hype machine enjoyed a short Williams-Stephens Twitter spat, but the throne-abdication plotline turned out to be nothing more than words and pictures. Stephens hasn't challenged Williams. She hasn't yet won a WTA tournament. She hasn't even reached a final. In the 22 tournaments she has played since beating Williams in Australia, Stephens has been eliminated in the first or second round nine times.
For now, her struggles have been massaged into a different narrative -- that Stephens is a "big tournament" player who raises her game for grand slams. This idea is a compliment to the enormity of Stephens' talent, but if she realized early in her career that she had the ability to be a top-20 player for the next 10 years, she is also discovering that her game is nowhere near good enough to make her a transcendent, elite player. Stephens is finding that talent is not enough. And much like with Griffin, Stephens is watching as other less hyped players such as Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep produce better results.
Some perspective is required here. Griffin is 24. Stephens turns 21 in March. Their journeys, despite the Adidas and Under Armour ad campaigns, magazine covers (including ours), pseudo-documentaries and ill-advised talk of "legacies," are just beginning. But the problem is that, compared to 20 years ago, today's sports cacophony makes it easier to be swallowed whole by the noise while losing sight of the performance. Griffin and Stephens should serve as reminders of just how hard the games are, of how much harder it is to actually be great -- a goal made even more difficult by the desire on the part of the public, the media and the entourage to anoint. Both have been reminded that being declared "It" is at best a cruel trap; it's to be treated like a legend without actually being one, then to be rebuked severely when expectations are not met.
But Griffin and Stephens can still learn. In a landscape of high compensation and attention for thin résumés, a premium exists on having a true anchor -- to resist the comparisons to 17-time grand slam winners, to dismiss the significance of NFL jersey sales, to remember and believe that being an athlete is far different from being a celebrity, and that doing the work is still the ultimate reward.